The woman has been both subject and predicate in a great deal of writing by male writers. Be it muse or mother, vamp or victim, fulsome or flawed, there has been a tendency among male writers to view a woman through a binary of 'this' or 'that' and to present women as black and white characters, often either impossibly white or improbably black. Since men are not expected to be one or the other but generally taken to be a combination of contraries, such a monochromatic view inevitably results in women being reduced to objects, of being taken to be `things' rather than 'people'.
In a world where more women are joining the work force, where ever more are stepping out from their secluded and cloistered world and can be physically seen in larger numbers, this collection seeks to explore how male writers in Urdu view and consequently present or represent the women of their world.
In her Introduction, Rakhshanda Jalil traces the history of `writings on women' by both male and female writers — from the doyens of Urdu literature to contemporary writers dealing with contemporary issues, setting the mood for the stories in this collection and giving the reader a sampler of what to expect in the ensuing pages.
The collection includes themes which are timeless as well as topics that are an outcome of the times we live in. Starting with two of the four pillars of the Urdu short story - Rajinder Singh Bedi and Krishan Chandar - who can be credited with introducing a realistic portrayal of women in Urdu fiction, the stories in this volume offer multiple ways of 'seeing' women.
Rakhshanda Jalil is a writer, critic and literary historian. She has published over 15 books and written over 50 academic papers and essays. Her book on the lesser-known monuments of Delhi, Invisible City, continues to be a bestseller. Her recent works include: Liking Progress, Loving Change: A Literary History of the Progressive Writers Movement in Urdu (OUP, 2014); a biography of Urdu feminist writer Dr Rashid Jahan A Rebel and her Cause (Women Unlimited, 2014); a translation of The Sea Lies Ahead, Intizar Husain's seminal novel on Karachi (Harper Collins, 2015); Pigeons of the Domes: Stories on Communalism (Niyogi Books, 2015) and Krishan Chandar's partition novel Ghaddar (Westland, 2017); and most recently an edited volume of critical writings on Ismat called An Uncivil Woman (Oxford University Press, 2017). She runs an organization called Hindustani Awaaz, devoted to the popularization of Hindi-Urdu literature and culture.
In a world ordered by sexual imbalance, pleasure in looking has been split between active/male and passive/female. The determining male gaze projects its fantasy on to the female form which is styled accordingly. In their traditional exhibitionist role women are simultaneously looked at and displayed, with their appearance coded for strong visual and erotic impact so that they can be said to connote to-be-looked-at-ness.'
Laura Mulvey, Visual and Other Pleasures
The woman has been both subject and predicate in a great deal of writing by male writers. In poetry she has, of course, been the subject of vast amounts of romantic, even sensuous imagery. Be it muse or mother, vamp or victim, fulsome or flawed, there has been a tendency among male writers to view a woman through a binary of 'this' or 'that' and to present women as black and white characters, often either impossibly white or improbably black. Since men are not expected to be one or the other but generally taken to be a combination of contraries, such a monochromatic view inevitably results in women being reduced to objects, of being taken to be 'things' rather than 'people'. That this objectification of women, and the consequent dehumanization, effectively 'others' half the human population seems to escape many writers, even those ostensibly desirous of breaking stereotypes or those who see themselves as liberal, even emancipated men. Films, television and media have traditionally aided and abetted the idea that women are objects to be pursued and eventually won over like trophies or prizes. Literature has fed into the trope that women are bona fide objects of sexual fantasy, or blank canvases on which men can paint their ideals, or even empty vessels into which they can pour their pent-up feelings and emotions.
Feminist theoreticians would have us believe that there is, and has always been, a traditional heterosexual way of men looking at women, a way that presents women as essentially sexual objects for the pleasure of the male viewer. The feminist film critic Laura Mulvey, in her seminal essay 'Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema' (1975), termed this way of seeing as the 'male gaze'. Mulveys theory was based on the premise that 'an asymmetry of power between the genders is a controlling force in cinema; and that the male gaze is constructed for the pleasure of the male viewer which is deeply rooted in the ideologies and discourses of patriarchy'. Within a short span of time, the expression slipped into accepted usage and moved seamlessly across medium: from film to literature to popular culture. Today, we use the term loosely to describe ways of men seeing women and consequently presenting or representing them.
In the context of Urdu, I have always been intrigued by how men view women and, by extension, write about them. For that matter, I am equally intrigued by how women view women and the world around them. In fact, as a precursor to this present volume, I had edited a selection of writings in Urdu by women called Neither Night Nor Day (Harper Collins, 2007). I had set myself a deliberately narrow framework by looking at women writers from Pakistan as I was curious to discover how women, in an essentially patriarchal society, view the place of women in the world. I chose 13 contemporary women writers and tried to examine the image and representation of women by women.
Now, ten years later, I have attempted to do the same with male writers, except that this time I have chosen Indian writers. While I have begun with two senior writers, Rajinder Singh Bedi and Krishan Chandar, I have chosen not to go back to the early male writers such as Sagged Hider Yildrum, Qazi Abdul Ghaffar or even Premchand, for that matter, who wrote extensively on women. For the purpose of this study, I wanted to make a selection from modern writers. In a world where more women are joining the work force, where ever more are stepping out from their secluded and cloistered world and can be physically seen in larger numbers, I was curious to see how, then, do male writers view and consequently present or represent the women of their world.
But before we come to my selection from the present times, it might be useful to understand the literary world contemporary Urdu writers have inherited and how women have been represented in Urdu fiction in the hands of the masters.
The Woman in Urdu Short Fiction
The four pillars of the Urdu short story — Saadat Hasan Manto, Ismat Chughtai, Rajinder Singh Bedi and Krishan Chandar —are not merely the finest exponents of the genre but can also be credited with introducing a realistic portrayal of women in Urdu fiction. Their women are a far cry from the cosmetic, unnatural, almost fictionalized depictions of women that Urdu readers had hitherto encountered.
Saadat Hasan Manto was among the earliest Urdu writers to have written about women with any degree of naturalness. He wrote about women in a way that no other writer from the Indian sub-continent had or has, till today. Sadak he Kinare (`By the Roadside') was a beautiful elegy to a mother forced to abandon her baby. Here Manto, quite literally, got under the skin of a woman, and described the very physical changes that take place in a woman's body as it prepared to nurture life deep inside it — and the equally 'real' physical trauma when the baby was snatched from her and tossed on a rubbish heap by the roadside, possibly because it was illegitimate and therefore not likely to be accepted by respectable society. And again in Shandole ka Chooha (The Rat of Shandole') Manto talked of a mother's despair in giving up her son as mannat at a saint's shrine where a perfectly healthy baby was 'miraculously' disfigured and mutilated into a rat-boy before being sold to an itinerant tamashawala. A scathing attack on the shrines that thrive on poor, desperate and superstitious people, the story derived its punch from a mother's steadfast desire to keep her son's memory alive inside her heart.
Similarly, Khuda hi Qasam was a mother's refusal to accept that her daughter may have been killed in the communal riots that heralded the partition of the sub-continent. Old, blind and nearly half-crazed with grief, she cannot believe anyone can kill a girl as beautiful as her daughter. In the end, she finds peace in death when she spots her daughter unexpectedly on the street one day, married though she is to the man who had abducted her. A most unexpected story was Dhandas (Comfort). A young widow is raped at a family wedding. Initially angry and inconsolable, she finds comfort in the arms of another man, one who offers comfort, immediately thereafter!
In Bismillah a woman by the strange, eponymous name, was the object of a man's lust, though she appeared to be the legally wedded wife of another man. Saeed is attracted, in equal measure, by Bismillah's large, sad-looking eyes as well as the lush fullness of her breasts and torn between voyeuristic delight in a woman's body and the prick of his own conscience. In the end, it turns out that the sullen, sphinx-like young woman is not his friend Zaheer's wife; she is a Hindu girl who got left behind during the riots and is being forced into prostitution by Zaheer who had been, all along, posing as a loving husband is budding film-maker.
Many who do not see Manto's prolific outpouring over a period o zo-odd years, often regard him as a writer unhealthily obsessed witf sex and, by extension, women. It is important to see stories like Thandc Gosht, Khol Do, Kaali Shalwar, Boo, Hatak or any of the other prostitute related stories in their context and also their place in Manto's oeuvre. While it is true that Manto's prostitute is a far cry from Mirza Ruswa's Umrao Jaan or Qazi Abdul Ghaffar's Laila who were victims, creatures more sinned against than sinning, Manto's women like Sugandhi, Sultana and countless unnamed others seem willing participants in the trade of their bodies.
Women occupied a central position in a great deal of Rajinder Singh Bedi's writings too and he has etched some memorable female characters: the eponymous Kalyani and Lajwanti, Indu in Apne Dukh Mujhe De Do (`Give Me Your Sorrows'), Rano in Eh Chaadar Maili Si CA Slightly Soiled Sheet') and Main Banj (`Barren Woman'). Details of everyday life, no matter how small, found a place in his stories and became reflections of a larger social reality. Bedi's stories survive the test of time because they hinge on the common and the commonplace that transcends time and circumstance. Human desires and aspiration just as much as human foibles and frailties neither change nor date; they are ageless and eternal — in men and women.
Ismat wrote bold stories that challenged traditional morality and worn-out notions of a woman's 'place' in society. Given her interest in sexual matters, comparisons between her and Manto have always been inevitable. Like Manto's Boo she faced terrible flak for her story, Lihaaf, published in Adab-e-Latif in 1942. While her interest was primarily in women, it is also true that she saw women in the larger social context. She wrote stories Uadein) and plays (Dhaani Bankein) on communal tensions, issues that did not concern women alone but issues that can be viewed from a unique perspective because they come from a woman's pen. She used wit and satire as tools to sharpen her depiction of social realities and give an extra edge to her pithy, flavorsome, idiomatic language, the begumaati zuban that she herself knew so well. In her hands, Urdu acquired a new zest, an added spice that made it not only more readable but also better equipped to reflect new concerns, concerns that had been hitherto considered beyond the pale of literature.
While Ismat was the tallest among the women writers of her generation, those who also made their mark were Hajira Masrur, Khadija Master, Siddiqa Begum Seoharvi, Shakila Akhtar, and Sarla Devi. None of these women, however, matched the vim and vigour of Rashid Jahan or Ismat Chughtai. Dr Rashid Jahan was Ismat's predecessor and she can be credited with, in a sense, 'showing the way' to writers such as Ismat. Rashid Jahan's desire to write stories primarily about women can be traced to her father's decision to start a school for girls in Aligarh (the present-day Women's College): in both we see an inherent desire for education and uplift. In the father's case through a pioneering attempt to provide modern, scientific education to girls in a safe and secure environment; in the daughter's case through a more radical, more explicitly anti-colonial, more reformist desire to 'expose' and thereby bring about change in the status of women. Muslim social reformers — be it Rokeya Sekhawat Hossein in Bengal, Maulvi Karamat Husain in Lucknow and to a certain extent the enlightened Begums of Bhopal — had all along concentrated on the education of the girl child. No one, till Rashid Jahan burst upon the scene, had spoken so openly about other matters that concerned women just as much as their education, namely, their reproductive
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